[Written originally for the CIPR Friday Roundup.]
You should not make edits to a Wikipedia entry when you have a conflict of interest, as any PR practitioner does in relation to their employer or client. Simple.
This Wikipedia rule is reflected precisely in the CIPR's Wikipedia guidance, published by the social media panel last summer and supported by PR bodies in Canada, Australia and South Africa. (Although not yet in the US.)
In actual fact, Wikipedia's rules for PR practice aren't necessarily that accessible or readily understood, which explains our effort last year to co-develop this more cogent guidance in full partnership with Wikimedia UK representing the Wikipedian community. It was a lengthy and detailed process, but very worthwhile I believe.
BP has been following these expectations to the letter. Its public relations representative has been engaging with Wikipedians on the talk pages of relevant entries, specifically regarding the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, but not editing entries directly.
And yet here's CNET's headline: "BP accused of rewriting environmental record on Wikipedia." It took the publication three days to update its article: "This piece was re-edited to stress that BP is following Wikipedia guidelines."
The "rage" CNET describes amongst Wikipedia editors is aimed as much at their own for taking suggested contributions from BP verbatim. But Wikipedians are also critical that the editor representing BP is paid by BP and "checks with his higher-ups before responding to any questions."
In Wikipedia speak, this is known as paid editing. As a PR practitioner, you are a paid editor when it comes to Wikipedia entries relating to your organisation or client. Wikipedia's corresponding policy asserts that "paid editing of a talk page is generally acceptable, but undisclosed paid editing of a policy page is forbidden. All paid editors are required to disclose their paid status on both their user page and on the affected article's talk page."
BP's editor did just that.
The excellence theory of public relations states that the profession is about working towards mutual understanding to build goodwill. Well, it seems to me that misunderstanding still reigns here.